Skyjacking Veteran Flies West
Air Line Pilot, May 2001, p.26
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer
A former ALPA officer who, as a pilot for Southern Airways, saw his passengers and crew through one of the most dramatic hijackings in aviation history has died at his home in La Grange, Tenn.
On February 26, Capt. William R. Haas, 72, died in his sleep of apparent heart failure, a peaceful end in marked contrast to the 30-hour ordeal he and his passengers and crew endured at the hands of a trio of skyjackers in November 1972.
Capt. Haas wasn’t even originally scheduled to take the flight from Memphis, Tenn., to Miami, Fla., an evening milk run with stops in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., and Orlando, Fla. The first leg was routine, but on descent into Montgomery, three men who had boarded the plane in Birmingham burst into the cabin, pressed a .38 caliber pistol into Capt. Haas’s cheek, and ordered him to divert to Jackson, Miss.
The gunmen wanted to hold the airplane and its 30 passengers for ransom from the city of Detroit, which they claimed had falsely accused them of rape and assault and whose police, the skyjackers claimed, had brutalized them.
After refueling at Jackson, the DC-9 headed north, where the skyjackers forwarded a demand to Detroit city officials for $10 million and 10 parachutes. A 30-hour ordeal followed, with the skyjackers popping pills, depleting the airplane’s liquor supply, and terrorizing the passengers while making an erratic series of demands.
During a fuel stop in Cleveland, Ohio, the skyjackers kept law enforcement personnel at bay with rifles and live hand grenades while food, water, and clothing were loaded onto the airplane. The skyjackers forced the pilots to fly to Toronto, Ont., then to Tennessee, and twice to Cuba, where they hoped to secure political asylum. Capt. Haas and his copilot, First Officer Billy Johnson, were forced to circle for hours, all the while relaying the progress of negotiations with law enforcement personnel on the ground and trying to reason with the skyjackers.
When Capt. Haas was allowed to use the rest room, he visited with every passenger in the DC-9’s cabin, reassuring them and reminding them to do whatever the skyjackers asked.
On the route south from Toronto, as the airplane circled above Knoxville, Tenn., one of the gunmen held a grenade to Capt. Haas’s throat and ordered him to plunge the aircraft into the nuclear power plant at Oak Ridge. As the pilot put the plane into a circling descent, he got word that an airplane carrying the ransom (in reality, only about $2 million of it) would meet the DC-9 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The scene at Chattanooga Airport was a carnival, with spectators lined up outside the chain-link fence to try to get a glimpse of the skyjackers as authorities scrambled to load the partial ransom (in $20 bills, so as not to tip off the gunmen), as well as fried chicken, coffee, cigarettes, pills, and a six-pack of beer onto the airplane.
When the gunmen were rebuffed in their request for asylum at Havana, they talked about flying to Europe to stash the ransom, but Capt. Haas convinced them to return to the United States for more fuel and proper navigational charts.
During refueling in Orlando, FBI agents moved in and shot out the DC-9’s tires. That enraged the skyjackers, who wounded F/O Johnson and ordered the pilots to fly again to Cuba. Despite the aircraft’s shredded tires, Capt. Haas managed the takeoff and landing smoothly; and the skyjackers, finally tiring, were apprehended, ending the airborne drama. For their part in the hijacking, the fugitives were sentenced to 8 years in a Cuban prison.
Friends and family of Capt. Haas credit his strong faith for pulling him through the harrowing experience. His wife relates that he told her that in the final hours, as he was circling Havana with his copilot struggling to remain conscious, he said, "Lord, it’s up to you," and he told her, "in three hours, it was over with."
On deplaning, one of the passengers marveled at the smooth landing, accomplished as it was on nothing more than rims and charred rubber. "I didn’t do it," the passenger said Capt. Haas told her. "I believe God did it."
George Hopkins, who included an account of the hijacking in ALPA’s history, Flying the Line, Volume I, recounted that Cuban premier Fidel Castro was at the airport to greet the crew as they disembarked. Surveying the burning landing gear, Castro approached the pilot and said through an interpreter, "I want to shake the hand of the man who kept that airplane in the air."
By all accounts, Capt. Haas came through the incident psychologically unscathed. When a family member suggested that he might be apprehensive about returning to the cockpit, he laughed and said, "You don’t think I’m going to let three [thugs] shaft me out of the best job I ever had!"
Both Capt. Haas and F/O (now Capt.) Johnson received the ALPA Gold Medal for Heroism for their actions. They and flight attendants Karen Chambers and Donna Holman were also given the Daedalian Civilian Air Safety Award. And Lloyd’s of London, the insurer of the DC-9, flew Capt. Haas to its home office to present him with a clock for bringing the aircraft through with the hull intact.
Following his experience, Capt. Haas spoke often about the need for tighter airport security and for better coordination in dealing with individuals who threaten air crews and passengers. He took an active role in ALPA’s lobbying efforts that led to passage of tougher anti-skyjacking laws and reinforcement of the captain as ultimate authority in dealing with dangerous confrontations aboard aircraft.
He lectured to numerous student and church groups and co-authored a book (now out of print), Odyssey of Terror, with Atlanta journalist Ed Blair in 1977.
A native of Jackson, Tenn., Capt. Haas had worked as a freight and ticket agent for American Airlines for about 10 years before signing on as a pilot for Southern Airlines in July 1959. Less than a year later, he joined his fellow pilots on the picket line in what was to be a 27-month strike at the carrier, the longest pilot strike in post-war history.
He remained a strong ALPA supporter throughout his 29-year piloting career. He served as a regional vice-president (now replaced by the system of executive vice-presidents) in 1974, as the Southern Master Executive Council chairman in 1976, and as captain representative for Republic (formed by the merger of Southern, North Central, and Hughes Air West) in the 1980s.
Capt. Bill Himmelreich, a retired Republic pilot who was a close friend of Capt. Haas, says that "Southern’s management had a lot of respect for the ‘cool and calm’ Capt. Haas, whom friends on the line knew as ‘Billy Bob.’" When contract talks bogged down, Capt. Himmelreich says, Capt. Haas reportedly went to management and said, "We’ll take some of the trimmings off our Christmas tree and you take some of them off yours [including a no-strike proposal] and maybe we can get this thing settled." The contract was concluded "in a week," Capt. Himmelreich attests.
Republic merged with Northwest in 1986, and Capt. Haas finished out his career with Northwest, retiring in September 1988.
Through the years, Capt. Haas kept in touch with his friends at Southern and in 1994 organized the quarterly Southern Airways Dutch Treat Luncheons in Memphis for former employees of the carrier that continue to this day.
He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Ann; five children, William, Jr.; Gerry; James D., a captain for Northwest Airlines; John; and Elizabeth; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Services and burial were in La Grange, Tenn., and the flags at Memphis Airport flew at half mast following word of his death.